A shortage of apprentices in key trades is hindering efforts to tackle the Republic’s housing squeeze, builders warn.
The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) says that the crisis in hiring new entrants has worsened since a report highlighted the problem a year ago.
Damien Duff, managing director of Seamus Duff & Sons, and president of the Master Painters and Decorators of Ireland, warned that the shortage was slowing construction projects, including house building.
His business now employs two people, from 49 direct and 36 sub-contractors in 2001. “We had seven apprentices between 2010, 2012 and 2015, but all of them left,” he said.
Mr Duff pointed out that the construction industry faced a shortage of apprentice painters, bricklayers, plasterers and tilers, needed to build houses.
Last year’s CIF report, by Dr Róisín Murphy of Technological University, Dublin, found that no company hired new apprentice tilers in the Republic in 2019.
The other three trades accounted for 49 new apprenticeships in total that year. In 2005 almost 1,000 people were training to work in these disciplines.
“We need to change the whole system,” Mr Duff argued. He explained that the block releases, central to apprentice training, is a barrier to hiring and retention. State training body, Solas, requires apprentices to complete theory courses in technical colleges for periods of 13 weeks at various points while they serve their time.
Up to 1991, this was done on a day-release basis, where trainees spent one day a week on theory, and the other four learning their trade on the job.
Mr Duff called for a switch back to this approach. Block release requires apprentices to travel to Dublin and other centres, or possibly to move there, when they can often afford neither. He added that the block release requirement forced all seven apprentices recruited by his firm in recent years to leave.
The businessman called for an increase in apprentices’ pay for their first two years. For example, he said painters were paid €7.10 an hour when they start. This rate should be €1-€2 more, he believes.
“There should be more incentives given by Government to hire apprentices. At the moment they pay €3,000, but that’s very little,” Mr Duff said. He partly blamed schools for the problem, saying they focused on directing students towards university, or careers in law or accounting, irrespective of whether or not it suited them.
“The schools have a lot to answer for,” Mr Duff argued. He pointed out that while apprentices were not highly paid while they trained “if they stick out their time, the money then can be unbelievable”.